Your guide to expat life in Malaysia

Living in Malaysia

A luxury lifestyle and low living costs are the main enticements for the increasing number of expats moving to Malaysia.

Other advantages include a highly developed infrastructure and excellent healthcare, along with superb shopping facilities and delicious local cuisine. If you live in an urban area, you’ll have to get used to crowded streets and traffic congestion. But it’s easy to swap the humid bustle of the city for tranquil beaches and rainforests at the weekend.

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Accommodation

You won’t have a problem finding comfortable, affordable accommodation in Malaysia. Rental prices are reasonable throughout the country, especially if housing is included in a lucrative employment package or financed by a large expat salary. Property in central Kuala Lumpur is more expensive than in any other area in Malaysia.

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Types of accommodation

Condominiums with facilities such as gyms and swimming pools are popular with expats. There’s also a wide choice of apartments, semi-detached and terraced houses and large detached bungalows.

Furnished/unfurnished

You’ll be able to find both furnished and unfurnished accommodation. Be aware that ‘unfurnished’ could mean a bare space that doesn’t even have kitchen units or curtain rails.

Renting property

Rental agreements are usually valid for two years – so make sure your contract includes a termination clause if there’s a chance you’ll want to leave earlier. You’ll have to pay a refundable security deposit of two months’ rent and another deposit for utilities.

Buying property

Expats can only buy properties over a certain value – and some areas are out of bounds. The purchasing process can take time, but it isn’t difficult if you have an estate agent to help you. You can also get information from a local Land Office in the state you want to live in.

Culture changes

Malaysia has a diverse population made up of numerous ethnic groups, including Malay, Chinese, Tamil and Filipino. The biggest cultural difference for many expats is the predominance of Islam, which influences society, politics and everyday life. It can also take a while to get used to the tropical heat and city crowds.

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Call to prayer

It may take time to adjust to the Muslim call to prayer that happens several times a day, but eventually you’ll find it becomes part of the fabric of life.

Etiquette

Beckoning or pointing with an outstretched finger is considered rude, as is using your left hand to give or receive anything.

Personal space

Malaysians value their space and stand a few feet apart when they talk to each other. Touching women in public is frowned upon.

Education

Malaysia’s public, private and international schools all have a reputation for high standards. In public schools most classes are in Malay, Chinese or Tamil, but English is taught as part of the curriculum. The school year runs from January to December with the main holidays in June/July and December/January.

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Public schools

Partially funded by the government, public schools have low fees and adequate facilities. But classes are large and admission is steeped in bureaucracy – so most expats send their children to a private or international school.

Private schools

Private schools in Malaysia follow guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education. Most classes are taught in English, but fees are higher than public schools.

International schools

Most of Malaysia’s international schools are in Kuala Lumpur. Many follow the British curriculum, but there are some that offer the American or Australian curriculum or the International Baccalaureate. While standards are high and facilities are excellent, these come at a price.

Homeschooling

While homeschooling is legal in Malaysia, you have to apply for school exemption from the Ministry of Education. There are many support groups and online resources for parents who want to homeschool their children.

Contact an expat living in Malaysia before you move to get an understanding of the country

Expat Explorer Survey respondent

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Keeping in touch

Landlines

Landlines are supplied by Telekom Malaysia. To apply for a contract, you’ll need a copy of your passport, proof of address and a work permit or visa.

Mobiles

Almost everyone in Malaysia has a mobile phone – locals call them ‘hand phones’. The three main providers are Celcom, DiGi, and Maxis. They all offer contract and prepaid packages at competitive rates.

Internet

While Internet speeds have lagged behind some Asian countries, Malaysia seems to be catching up. Various providers offer packages for broadband and WiFi.

Social media

Social media is a sensitive issue in Malaysia. Although the government values free speech, it also has a Sedition Act and censors mainstream media – so it’s best to avoid posting anything contentious.

Television

Malaysia has a few local free-to-air TV stations, along with two national channels that you have to subscribe to. The Astro Satellite TV service has programmes in English and Chinese, but most expats watch Internet TV.

English media

Malaysia has many English-language newspapers. The leading daily is the New Straits Times and the most popular paper in Penang is The Star.

Healthcare

Malaysia prides itself on being a medical tourism destination with a high standard of affordable healthcare. Both public and private hospitals have good equipment and skilled staff. Most health professionals speak English and consultation fees are reasonable.

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Public healthcare

Anyone can get emergency medical care for a nominal fee at Malaysia’s public hospitals and clinics. For anything else, you’ll need to have residency status and a MyKad ID card or foreign workers’ social insurance (SKHPPA) through your employer.

Private healthcare

There are dozens of world-class private hospitals and clinics across the country. Most expats choose to pay for private healthcare, either out of pocket or through medical insurance.

Pharmacies

You’ll find pharmacies (farmasi) on the high street and in shopping malls, as well as in hospitals and clinics. Pharmacists are well trained, able to give medical advice and can usually speak English.

Emergency services

When you call an ambulance, you’ll be taken to the nearest public emergency room free of charge, but there may not be any paramedics or medical equipment on board.

Health hazards

Malaysia has high levels of air pollution, particularly from June to October, and health warnings are often issued by the Malaysian government. Dengue fever outbreaks are common throughout the country, especially during the rainy season – so take precautions against mosquito bites.

Getting around

Public transport in Malaysia is excellent – so you’re unlikely to need a car. Because traffic can be congested and chaotic in urban areas, many commuters travel by train or bus.

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Trains

The national rail service, KTMB, covers most of West Malaysia with links to Thailand and Singapore. There’s also a commuter network in suburban Kuala Lumpur. In East Malaysia, Sabah is the only state with a railway.

Buses

Bus routes cover most of Malaysia and long-distance coaches are popular for intercity travel. In Kuala Lumpur there’s a free hop-on-hop-off service called Go-KL – look out for the bright pink buses.

Taxis

It’s easy to find a taxi in the cities, but they’re relatively expensive, usually unmetered and slow because of the traffic.

Ferries

Frequent ferry services connect most Malaysian islands to the mainland. There are also daily services to Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore.

Driving

You can use an international driving licence when you arrive in Malaysia, but you’ll have to convert it to a local licence within three months. You may also have to pass a written test if your home country doesn’t have a reciprocal agreement with Malaysia. While the quality of the road network varies, highways and city streets are said to be among the best in Southeast Asia.

Domestic flights

Malaysia’s scattered geography makes flying your best option for reaching outlying areas. The most popular airlines include Firefly, Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in August 2016. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.